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Henley: A Teacher’s Perspective

September 20, 2011

Chair of the St. Andrew’s English Department Elizabeth Roach offered these reflections after the 2011 Boys Crew Team’s efforts making the finals of the Henley Royal Regatta’s Princess Elizabeth Cup Challenge.

As a teacher for 30 years, I have watched boys and girls emerge into young men and women during their years at St. Andrew’s and beyond—it is actually what I love most about being a teacher.  We have the opportunity to be a part of amazing moments of transformation and growth, and because we continue to stay connected with our former students, we also get to see them become adults with careers and families and diverse interests and passions.  But I have rarely witnessed such stunning and palpable growth in a group of boys as I did in the short span of five days during the Henley Regatta.  They literally changed before our eyes.

Of course, I know that this growth was a long process; I know that some of these boys have been rowing together for four years and that Lindsay Brown has been coaching them all for several seasons and that they had an intense and exciting spring season and that they worked hard every day in June before the regatta.  But something unique happened in those five days of racing, something that as teachers we hope to see after years of hard work with our students, and I wanted to try to capture exactly what happened from the outside perspective of a spectator, of a teacher of these boys and colleague of the coaches.  I also want to try to understand how and why this magic occurred, for we need to strive to replicate it in our daily lives as educators of boys and girls in the 21st century.  Because even though it appeared to be magical, it’s not magic at all—it is a carefully and thoughtfully constructed dynamic that required exhausting preparation, commitment, focus, resilience, trust and love.

I don’t know a lot about crew, but as a tennis player, I can imagine that the Henley Regatta is similar to a tennis tournament in that it’s head-to-head competition that takes place over consecutive days against a new and more challenging opponent each day and even when you win, you can’t really celebrate because you need to focus on the next day’s opponent and then, unless you win the whole tournament, you meet defeat along the way.

What struck me about our boys during these five intense days was their calm poise. They seemed only vaguely aware of their accomplishments as they moved through the regatta bracket, certainly happy with their victories, whether they were by two lengths or two inches, but totally composed.  We were cheering wildly, of course, and crying and hugging and jumping up and down.  But they simply smiled and thanked us and then shook their opponents’ hands and returned to their meticulously scheduled routine.  They carried themselves with both confidence and humility as they talked to us, their teachers and parents and grandparents and fellow St. Andrew’s alumni.  Such composure–such focus, poise and grace–can only manifest itself when you are deeply and thoroughly prepared physically, emotionally and psychologically.  And this is where Lindsay Brown executed his coaching and mentorship so beautifully.

Lindsay prepared his crew not just as athletes (and yes, they were in unbelievable shape) but as young men who were at the Henley Regatta to accomplish far more than winning races. They needed to trust each other as brothers, as family; they needed to be highly conscious of themselves as individuals doing their part to their maximum ability while being highly conscious of those around them as well; they needed to listen to and connect with their coaches, adults who had more experience in life and understood the world a bit better than they did.  Lindsay insisted on excellence in character, above all.  He insisted that they push each other to be better people and in doing so they also became better people.  This, in the end, is what we as teachers need to be doing.  We need to find ways to make our students the best possible versions of themselves.

When I talked with Jameson Pesce, the coxswain, at the final party, he described what he felt was, for him, the defining moment of the regatta.  Ironically, or perhaps naturally and serendipitously, Alec Bear—coxswain of the 2002 Henley crew—told Jameson that he only had one regret about his own experience: he had not sounded confident enough in his rowers and had not communicated his belief in his crew as ardently as he should have during their quarterfinals race (which they lost).  When our crew had a bad start in the quarterfinal race against Hampton, Alec’s words echoed in Jameson’s ears.  He told himself: “Make them believe that they can do it! Sound confident! Stay calm!”  He did just that.  With Jameson’s belief and guidance, the rowers collected themselves, pushed each other to their fullest potential, slowly regained their momentum, and won the race by a canvas.  The power of this moment is layered, for it connects the St. Andrew’s family in a seamless way: a former rower of Lindsay’s advising a current rower of Lindsay’s about a particular moment at Henley in 2002 which then strangely replicated itself in 2011 and allows this year’s crew to win virtually the same race that the 2002 rowers had lost.  The crew, in a seemingly effortless way, then went on to trounce Eton, the clear favorite and winner for the past two years, in the semi-finals the next day.  But the fact that Jameson’s reflections on that last night focused on his conversation with Alec highlights the importance of connection and teaching.  Alec had obviously learned and internalized the essence of Lindsay’s teachings and was then able to teach Jameson.  He knew how to make sure that Jameson infused confidence in his own crew, that Jameson knew how to push them to be better rowers by believing in them as people and as athletes.  In essence, Jameson—because of this layered mentoring—taught his own crew how to be better than they thought they could be.

So on the final day, after losing to Abingdon, as the boys once again graciously hugged and thanked us, they knew—deeply and profoundly—that even though they had not won it all, they were in fact the best version of themselves.  And that was for us, as teachers, a wonderful thing to celebrate.

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